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‘BOOM FOR REAL’ examines life of painter Jean Michel Basquiat

Gregg Reese OW Contributor                 | 3/29/2018, midnight
The premature demise of a figure of note is a blessing in a twisted sort of way, as it..

“In a world where black people are not celebrated or supported, he did it. He blew the roof off that sucker.” —actress and musician Felice Rosser

The premature demise of a figure of note is a blessing in a twisted sort of way, as it captures them at the apex of their creative powers and physical attractiveness. Personas like Marilyn Monroe or Elvis Presley will thusly never grow old and succumb to the ravages of old age and father time. They are, in essence, captured at the peak of their existence, frozen in time for the imagination of an adoring fan base.

Within the lexicon of pop culture, the mythos of the number 27 has developed over the years to notate the inordinate number of rock musicians who have died at the tender age of 27, most often in the wake of a hedonistic life style. The origins of this legend stem from the demise of seminal musicians Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones, and Jim Morrison within a few short years of each other in the early 1970s. While not a performer, visual artist Jean Michel Basquiat fits the bill by virtue of his 1988 death (at 27) in New York, the de facto center of world culture.

Basquiat’s ascent was propelled by his association with the leading lights of the trendy lower east side of Manhattan (he briefly dated pop icon Madonna). This has resulted in a number of films (executed by contemporaries in his artistic and social circles) about or featuring the painter, including the biopic “Basquiat” (1996), and the documentaries “Downtown 81" (1981), “Jean Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child” (2010), and the recently completed “Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat,” directed by Sara Driver.   

“Boom” distinguishes itself by focusing on the period right before fame catapulted into the world’s psyche. Put out in the street by his middle class father, he survived via charisma and personal magnetism, especially towards the opposite sex. Along the way, many of them documented his progress, especially his girlfriend, actress and biology student Alexis Adler, whose home footage forms the framework of the doc. Along with still photos from others in their circle, we see Basquiat as a tireless experimenter, adopting and discarding outlandish hair styles, and applying his vision to anything receptive to paint.

Transitioning from his graffiti-informed street tags to the galleries and salons of Manhattan’s Soho and Fifth Avenue, he grew up along with the asset of disco, hardcore punk, rap and other emerging urban movements. Drawing from his Haitian and Puerto Rican heritage, he maintained the “street cred” that haunted him until his heroin overdose in the same Manhattan milieu that spawned him. Among those adding sound bites and recollections from this period are his pals Hip Hop pioneer Fred Brathwaithe, aka Fab 5 Freddy, indie filmmaker Jim Jarmusch (husband of  director Driver), and fellow graffiti artist Lee Quinones.

Since then, he’s reached the stratosphere of the gilded international set (his 1982 painting titled simply “Untitled” sold for $110 million in May of 2017), and his works are in the collections of celebrities like Beyonce and Jay-Z, Leonardo DiCaprio, Johnny Depp, John McEnroe, Mary-Kate Olson, Yoko Ono, and of course Madonna.

“Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat,” is scheduled for a limited release on May 11.